Hastings United had to settle for a ‘good’ point in a 1-1 draw away to Haywards Heath Town.
On a good-looking pitch, where the going proved to be soft to heavy in places, United produced a resilient performance against combative opponents. In a first-half of few clear-cut chances Heath took the lead through Tom McCreadie’s terrific half-volley after 36 minutes. United’s urgency in the second-half finally paid dividends after 71 minutes when Ben Pope drilled in the equaliser.
After days of precipitation and a mid-week postponement, it was a relief to find Heath’s ground resplendent in the mid-afternoon sun. However, this view flattered to deceive. After the early exchanges, it was clear the pitch was holding a significant amount of moisture. The ball held up on the surface and the ground clung to the players boots. Play was slow offering an additional second or two for players to close down and make a challenge.
After ten minutes United fashioned three swift half-chances. First, Adam Lovatt and Ben Pope played head tennis in midfield before Pope found Lanre Azeez on the wing, his cross fell to Jack Dixon who didn’t connect properly. Dixon then chested into the path of Azeez to set up Pope to shoot wide from 18 yards. And Azeez again the architect, this time for Daniel Ajakaiye to attempt an acrobatic effort which also missed the target.
On 15 minutes Heath were close to taking the lead via an unlikely source. Saunders passed down the line and McCreadie did well to keep the ball in play. His cross was met by the head of United’s Craig Stone which seemed destined for the top corner until the ball drifted out at the last moment. Two Heath corners followed, noticeable for all United’s players being back in their penalty area.
Lovatt was constantly involved, picking up the pieces in midfield and moulding the scraps into United momentum. Azeez was also having a good game and on 30 minutes he combined with Pope to set up Ajakaiye who hit a left-footed shot past the upright. Close again but still no shot on target or a save to make by either goalkeeper.
A third of the game had passed, an open game, with United looking more dangerous going forward. Heath though were not cowed and looked dangerous themselves from freekicks and corners. This was emphasised emphatically at their next set-piece. Heath won a corner, again the penalty area was crammed. When the cross was half cleared to McCreadie on the edge of the area, he hammered a sweet half-volley through a mass of players to open the scoring.
On half-time, Azeez and Pope linked up again to give Ajakaiye the chance to equalise only to slice his shot from six yards.
Half-time: Haywards Heath Town 1 – 0 Hastings United
Second-half underway and Heath were on the offensive, seemingly buoyed by being in front against the league leaders. They forced two corners and then from a tantalising cross from Cotton, McCreadie was a stud length away from doubling their lead.
This prompted United to up the urgency and, despite the attritional nature of the pitch, United continued to ping the ball around. Stone hit a long ball into the path of Dixon who made room and had his shot blocked. Sam Adams then ran on to Ollie Black’s through ball, onside but his cross evaded everyone.
Twenty minutes remaining and Lovatt again took control of the ball in midfield, a key feature of his overall performance. He accurately played the ball into the feet of Ajakaiye who turned superbly and forced his way into the area. With defenders attempting to close him down, the ball broke to Pope who pounced and equalised with low hard shot underneath the goalkeeper into the corner. A real strikers finish and Pope’s 11th goal of the season.
Heath continued to cause trouble from set-pieces. A freekick out on the right was met by substitute Simpson at the back post, his header expertly tipped over the bar by Louis Rogers. Best save of the game. Minutes later Simpson found space in the area to shoot, this time Rogers saved with his feet to maintain parity.
With time running out United worked the ball to Sam Beale, his cross was headed the wrong side of the post by Pope. In the final minute of added time Pope was fouled 30 yards out, central, presenting Adams with the chance to win it. It was a great hit, around the wall but inches wide.
A competitive game on an extremely heavy pitch, with the draw a fair result. United were seeking all three points but remain unbeaten in the league. As a consequence, they once again swap places at the top with Sevenoaks Town.
Full-time: Haywards Heath Town 1 – 1 Hastings United
Hastings United: Rogers, Elphick, Stone, Ajakaiye (86’ Pogue), Pope, Adams, Beale, Worrall (54’ Black), Lovatt, Azeez (63’ Rodari), Dixon (Unused subs: Chalmers, Pool)
Haywards Heath Town: Glover, Morrison, Summerfield, L Cotton (76’ Cooper), Spinks, Watson, Saunders (90’ Rowe), Napper, McCreadie, Warwick (76’ Simpson), N Cotton (Unused subs: Hallard, Graves)
Next game: Tuesday 22nd October at home to Haywards Heath Town, kick-off 7:45pm (Velocity Sports Trophy).